Something that didn’t seem like it would be a problem became a very real one on Tuesday, when Scotland were forced to play Jack Hendry at left centre-back against Armenia. Scott McKenna was ruled out with injury and Liam Cooper, the obvious candidate to step in, had left the camp early – following last week’s Armenia game – to attend a wedding. Well, at least it was his own.
Cooper wasn’t the only one. Goalkeeper Zander Clark was similarly double booked. It was supposed to be the close season after all. But it did seem strange that this was even a potential issue at this level.
Scotland got away with it in Armenia although it didn’t look like that would be the case in the opening half-an-hour. The hosts seemed able to break through at will. Hendry looked especially vulnerable as a new back-line tried to bed in.
But ill-discipline in the hosts’ ranks played into the visitors' hands. Scotland responded with a thoroughly professional performance after such a shaky opening.
Divorce proceedings have been halted. Clarke will enter his 60th year – he turns 59 in August – as the manager of Scotland, not that there was surely any doubt.
His contract was extended as recently as August. Since then, Scotland have won eight out of ten competitive fixtures. Contemplating changing manager would be absurd in any case, but what is effectively a mini-qualifying campaign looms just over three months' time.
Win all three games, or even just the first two and draw the third, and Scotland have the guarantee of a play-off spot for Euro 2024.
Unfortunately, two of the three games are the hardest in the group on paper – Ukraine home and away, with the latter clash set to take place in Poland.
These fixtures bookend the chance to gain revenge over Republic of Ireland at Hampden. But that will be far from straightforward as well against Stephen Kenny’s rejuvenated team.
At least the 4-1 win over Armenia all but shuts down the prospect of a summer of should-he-or-shouldn’t-be sacked chatter. Clarke knows he would have faced a furious backlash had Scotland not prevailed against Armenia. Indeed, he felt the stirrings of one in Dublin. It was a warning about what he can expect in the Autumn should things go awry.
Who would be an international manager? After six matches in 12 weeks, Scotland, with no World Cup to prepare for, have just three scheduled for the rest of the year. They come in an intense seven-day period. At least it isn’t falling at the end of a long, gruelling season.
“Two wins against Armenia are not going to make this a good international camp,” Clarke said after the win in Yerevan. “Because it wasn’t.” The defeat to Ukraine in the World Cup semi-final play-off a fortnight ago continues to cast a long shadow.
Craig Brown, the last manager to take Scotland to a World Cup, believes Clarke is being too hard on himself. “You want to get to a World Cup, you want to be involved, and I can understand why Steve is a bit disappointed that we’re not going,” he told The Scotsman. “But he was desperately unlucky.
"They were very good opponents in Ukraine – a country of 44 million people. But what few people have mentioned is that a few years ago they won the Under-20 world championships.”
Brown also believes critics were too harsh following the defeat in Dublin. It reminded him of ten-man Scotland’s 3-0 defeat by Morocco as they crashed out of the World Cup in 1998 in St Etienne. “When you look at the stats – we had more possession, even though we lost 3-0 to the Irish,” he says. “We had more shots on goals, more shots on target and more corner kicks.
“Of course, he got slaughtered. I know possession can be deceptive but corners and shots give an indication. Stevie didn’t retaliate the way I might have, by saying ‘look at the corners’ … although I know I got the mickey taken out of me for that.”
Brown knows the pressure Clarke is operating under as well as anyone. He can even empathise with the wedding conundrum. One of his greatest regrets as Scotland manager was giving Steven Pressley a late call up for a friendly in Dublin in 2000 and then leaving him on the bench throughout, even though he had rearranged his nuptials to come at short notice.
Spare a thought, then, for Stephen O’Donnell, the only outfield player not handed so much as a minute in the four-match, 5,000-mile odyssey stretching from the Oriam campus on the outskirts of Edinburgh to the Caucasus. The Motherwell full-back has now come home to discover that his European adventures with Motherwell in the coming season will begin in … Wales or Ireland.
A year ago, he was first choice right wing-back at Euro 2020 and let no one down.
Otherwise, Clarke had made use of this squad, handing a first cap to Allan Campbell in the dying minutes against Armenia. Lewis Ferguson also appeared for the first time in this international window after missing the first three games through injury.
Limited knowledge seems to have been gleaned from the last few weeks other than how key Kieran Tierney is to Scotland’s prospects. Perhaps only two players truly enhanced their case for a starting spot. One is Anthony Ralston, who is now a very realistic option at right wing-back.
The other is Stuart Armstrong, who scored twice on Tuesday and played in Che Adams for the third. Fitness permitting, he can surely expect to start when Ukraine return to Glasgow.